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Posted on February 20, 2020 (5780) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

So it will be that if he cries out to Me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.[2]

It seems rather odd to threaten someone with Divine compassion! Yet the plain sense of the text seems to suggest just that. The Torah here underscores the need – the commandment! – for a lender to return a pledge that an impoverished borrower had to offer in order to secure a loan. If the borrower was compelled by circumstances to offer his bedding as collateral for his loan, the lender is instructed to hold on to it only during daytime hours. At night, when the lender will need it, the lender must return it to him. The same applies to the tools that a borrower uses by day. If forced to pledge them as collateral, the lender may hold on to them at night, but must return them by the borrower to use by day. Should he fail to do so, thunders our pasuk, the lender will be in deep trouble. Hashem will listen to the cry of the borrower, in His compassion!

And then what? Is the implication that Hashem, responding to the anguish of the borrower, will strike out against the lender? Would the Torah attribute His punishing the lender to His compassion, rather than His justice? Do we ever see some evil that befalls someone linked to G-d’s compassion?

Rather, you will say, Hashem’s compassion will be stirred when he takes heed of the suffering of the borrower. That compassion will change the life of the borrower, who will experience a turnaround in his fortune, and become enriched. That would be a lovely end to the story – but it hardly will deter the borrower from holding on to the collateral rather than returning it. The borrower only seeks to protect the funds that he lent. Should the borrower suddenly go from rags to riches, why should the borrower object? So what, then, could the Torah mean by its “threat” of compassion?

The compassion, I believe, is meant not as a threat, but as a form of security to the lender. When the Torah insists that the pledge must be returned each day, the lender thinks he is left exposed. (When the pledge is ordinarily left in the hands of the lender, the borrower is motivated to pay back the loan to recover his pledge.) The lender is not left with the conventional security behind the loan! What protection does he have, if the borrower keeps on crying poverty, and pushes off paying off his indebtedness?

The Torah therefore offers the lender significant reassurance. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the borrower is not as poor as he makes himself out to be. He illegitimately cries poverty, snatches up his pledge once a day when he needs it, and doesn’t worry about making good on his obligation. The Torah tells the lender not to worry. “The wicked borrow and do not give back, but the Righteous One is gracious and repays.”[3] The lender will not lose. Hashem will see to it that his loan is covered. He will take care of it.

On the other hand, perhaps the borrower really cannot pay back the loan. Perhaps he is overburdened with the expenses of teaching Torah to his son, or marrying off his daughters. The Torah again offers its assurance. The borrower acted properly, because Chazal instruct us to borrow for mitzvah purposes! “Borrow on My account, and I will pay back.”[4] Again, Hashem announces that He will make good on the loan.

The sense of our pasuk, therefore, is “When you pressure the borrower incessantly, it is really Me whom you pressure, because I have guaranteed the loan! I do so because I am compassionate. When the borrower cries out to Me, I hear his cry – and your denial of my compassion! That is a serious aveirah, and puts you at risk of punishment.”

  1. Based on Meshivas Nafesh by R. Yochanan Luria (15th century)
  2. Shemos 22:26
  3. Tehillim 37:21
  4. Beitzah 15b